A Foreign Service Officer (FSO) is a commissioned member of the United States Foreign Service. Foreign Service Officers formulate and implement the foreign policy of the United States. FSOs spend most of their careers overseas as members of U.S. embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions, though some receive assignments to serve at combatant commands, Congress, and educational institutions such as the various U.S. War Colleges.
Foreign Service Officers are one of five categories of Foreign Service employees. Other categories include Chiefs of mission, Ambassadors at large, Foreign Service Personnel, and Foreign Service Nationals.
As of 2017, there were over 8,000 FSOs.
FSOs of the State Department are split between five career tracks, called "cones": Consular Officers, Economic Officers, Management Officers, Political Officers, and Public Diplomacy Officers.
FSOs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, and Broadcasting Board of Governors are selected through processes specific to the hiring agency, and follow career tracks separate from those of State Department FSOs. For example, within USAID, there are multiple technical "backstops" including:
Many leadership roles at U.S. embassies are filled from the ranks of career FSOs. Recently, about two-thirds of U.S. Ambassadors have been career Foreign Service members primarily drawn from the Department of State, although other foreign affairs agencies have produced Ambassadors from time to time. Almost all of the remaining third are political appointees, though a handful of State Department Senior Executive Service personnel have received Ambassadorships. FSOs also help fill critical management and foreign policy positions at the headquarters of foreign affairs agencies in Washington, D.C.
Applicants for State Department FSO jobs go through a highly competitive written exam, oral assessment, and security investigation process before they are eligible to be hired. Of the more than 100,000 applicants for State Department FSO positions between 2001 and 2006, only 2,100 became Foreign Service Officers. Once candidates have completed the application process, received a top secret security clearance, been medically cleared for worldwide deployment, and passed a final suitability review, they receive a score and are placed on a hiring register for their career tracks.
New candidates are appointed from the top of the register (highest score), and candidates who are not appointed within 18 months will be removed from the register. Candidates may decline one offer; declining a second will strike their names from the register. Some candidates go on "do-not-call" status until they are ready to receive offers, but the 18-month timer still continues to run. It is common for a candidate with a low score to simply expire from the register, thus making the process even more competitive. In the end, fewer than 2% of initial applicants to the State Department Foreign Service will matriculate as Foreign Service Officers.
In extremely rare cases when no Foreign Service Officers are available, non-career civil servants can be appointed by the Secretary for entry into the Foreign Service, providing they meet rigorous standards expected of career members. These limited appointees are not officially members of Foreign Service and must leave anytime a career officer becomes available for their positions. This is a legal requirement negotiated with the American Foreign Service Association.
Applicants for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) FSO jobs follow a somewhat different process. Because USAID has a strong technical focus in many of its overseas positions, FSOs are generally recruited for specific backstops. Most successful candidates will have an advanced degree (often a masters) and pertinent job experience related to their backstop and will undergo an interview and testing process tailored to that backstop, but otherwise it is similar to that for State Department applicants.